Southwestern Community College is gearing up for some soil testing following a meeting with Robin Proctor, environmental chemist with the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources, on Tuesday. SCC had taken the initiative to call the meeting as plans to improve its shooting range brought up the fact that an estimated 60 tons of lead shot have accumulated in the range’s clay berm in the 30 years it’s been in use.
It’s been three decades since the shooting range now operated by Southwestern Community College first opened, and the college is hoping for some money to address issues that have been mounting since then.
Southwestern Community College leaders unveiled a master plan last month outlining a major expansion of its campus in Macon County.
The campus would double in size from 20 to 40 acres. The master plan has several phases, but the first phase calls for a 38,000-square-foot science building with 15 classrooms and a lab. The first phase also calls for a new law enforcement training center and indoor firing range.
By Tyler Norris Goode • Contributor
Rowan Stuart’s favorite kayak maneuver is called the “Phonics Monkey” and involves spinning the vessel on its bow like a pirouette for a full 360 degrees then flipping the boat end over end.
There’s nothing easy about the trick, but Stuart’s ability to cleanly achieve it at high-level competitions is a big reason she’ll be competing in the Freestyle World Championships, the premier competition for freestyle paddling athletes, that start Sept. 2 in the Nantahala Gorge.
About 30 cosmetology students stand at their individual workstations cutting, coloring and chatting; they are elbow-to-elbow and back-to-back, cramped as they cater to paying clients in the small salon room at Haywood Community College.
A contingent of administrators from Southwestern Community College made a pitch to Jackson County commissioners Monday to help pay for a campus building plan.
Southwestern Community College officially dedicated a new $8.8 million building on its main campus in Sylva last week. The building was built with a majority of state money but also a large contribution by Jackson County.
The idea of a restaurant and a commons area where students could meet and eat sounds like a good one to Angie Stanley, a student in Southwestern Community College’s medical respiratory program.
“That really would be nice,” the Sylva resident said. “A lot of people have to leave campus to eat lunch.”
When Stanley packs her lunch, which she often does when there won’t be time to leave campus between classes, she’s forced to eat in a classroom somewhere. That’s because there’s few gathering places for students to congregate.
SCC leaders want to change that by building a central quad, typical of most university campuses, but less so for community colleges. A quad is in the works as part of the new $8 million Burrell Building under construction. It will house a new bookstore plus additional academic and administrative space. It is scheduled to open in August.
But to fully flush out the concept of the quad, SCC hopes to add a commons area to the plan that could serve as a gathering point.
Campus leaders have asked Jackson County commissioners for $580,000 to build a commons area, along with an on-campus restaurant, said SCC President Donald Tomas.
“This would be an extension of the Burrell building, right in the center of campus,” Tomas said.
That sounded good to electrical engineering major Kenny Pleskach.
“I bring my own lunch probably 95 percent of the time, but yeah it would be a cool thing to have a place to eat your lunch,” Pleskatch said, adding that he currently hangs out in one of several gazebos sprinkled about campus.
Money for a quad, but not a commons area and restaurant, is included in the $8 million cost of the Burrell building.
Janet Burnette, a vice president at the college, said the college would lease out the restaurant space to a restaurant entity such as Subway or something similar.
Student questionnaires and surveys have consistently shown food service — or lack thereof — is their top concern on campus, said Delos Monteith, SCC’s institutional research and planning officer.
“We did 10 focus groups and asked students if they could change one thing about SCC what would that be. Overwhelmingly they said food service,” Monteith said.
A commons area combined with the quad would also give the university a central gathering space it currently lacks, Tomas said.
Burnette said if the school does not get the money requested from commissioners it would do “a very scaled back version” of the plan. Drawings and schematics for a full version are being compiled now.
The $580,000 from commissioners would be paired with $580,000 from the state to build the enclosed commons area and restaurant, as well as a few other building items around campus, Tomas said.
County Commission Chairman Jack Debnam said that he wished commissioners had known about the capital building needs a bit earlier in the county budget process.
Tomas said that hadn’t occurred because the school had not known until recently that it would have access to state dollars for such a project.
“This spring the state gave us some flexibility on this one-time deal,” Tomas said. “The timing seems right if the monies are there — this project would enhance the campus tremendously.”
The total $1.16 million project would include other construction items as well.
• Renovate another building located in the quad area, the Founders Building, which is the oldest building on campus.
• Add 10 hair stations to the cosmetology department located in the Founders Building.
“It needs some upgrading,” Tomas said of the early 1960s-era building.
SCC received $304,500 in capital funds this year from Jackson County and is asking for a total of $677,000 for the next fiscal year — with the $580,000 earmarked for the special projects.
They are dubbed by some in the community as the Three Amigos: a new chancellor at Western Carolina university, David Belcher; a new president at Southwestern Community College, Donald Tomas; and a new superintendent of schools for Jackson County; Mike Murray.
Each started their respective positions July 1. Each promises new eras of leadership that connects their respective institution’s educational efforts to the overall good of the community. Each seem comfortable in, and energetic about, their roles as institutional and community leaders.
“Openness, honesty and transparency,” Tomas said during his introductory remarks at a community meeting this week. SCC, which serves residents of Jackson, Macon and Swain counties and the Cherokee Indian Reservation, is piggybacking strategic planning efforts on those of neighboring WCU.
Tomas said the Three Amigos have been meeting and discussing educational and community issues.
“This is an extremely exciting and unique opportunity,” he said.
The university, under the baton of Belcher, is holding a series of seven community meetings in the region to hear what residents have to say about the school’s future. About 45 or 50 people, many of them WCU and SCC employees, turned out for the Jackson County hearing, though far fewer than that opted to actually stand up and speak.
Those who did called on WCU and SCC to help bolster a sagging economy, but to do so while protecting the region’s natural resources and great beauty. They discussed a lack of childcare for professionals; and more specific needs, such as a request by Julie Spiro, executive director of the Jackson County Chamber of Commerce, for WCU to again produce a regional economic report. Susie Ray, a retired WCU employee, urged the university to tap into the huge retiree population in WNC and corner a niche on “creative retirement.”
There were complaints that WCU wasn’t accessible to the community. The swimming pool, for instance, is closed to the public unless you are a student or WCU employee, forcing those who want to swim for exercise to motor over the Balsams to Waynesville. Continuing education classes are priced out of the reach of anyone except, perhaps, retired employees from WCU.
Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten, who retired from the university after 30 years service, told his former colleagues that many in the community simply don’t feel comfortable on campus. They feel uneasy and out of place. And, in turn, many of WCU’s faculty and staff choose to live somewhere other than Jackson County, with their connections to the community limited to commuting back and forth to work.
Vance Davidson, an SCC trustee, spoke similarly of the “silo” mentality that’s afflicted the various Jackson County educational institutions.
“We are a lot better together than we are apart,” Davidson said. “We have not enjoyed the best university, town, community relationships — we need to change that.”
Donald Tomas, the new president of Southwestern Community College since July 1, believes local institutions such as SCC will rely more and more on private donations as state funds continue drying up.
Private fundraising is already a fact of life for neighboring Western Carolina University and other schools in the University of North Carolina system. WCU, under former Chancellor John Bardo, raised more than $51 million in 2009 with its first comprehensive fundraising campaign in university history. New Chancellor David Belcher, who like Tomas took over July 1, is promising to lead the university through an even more successful fundraising campaign.
Tomas isn’t a stranger to raising private money to help fund public institutions. His last post was in south Texas, where he served as vice president of instruction at Weatherford College. He grew the campus from a single 2,400 square foot building with just five parking spaces — he personally parked on the street to save the spots for others — to 95,000 square feet, replete with 25 classrooms, a library and book store, during his 18-year career there.
“We were able to rally the community,” Tomas said.
But in Texas, they’ve been doing things a bit differently than here in North Carolina. Buildings and rooms weren’t named in honor of community do-gooders or public leaders who served as college boosters. Rather, naming rights were given to those who donated money, whether it was a private business or philanthropist. Tomas said he’s not above selling brick pavers engraved with donors’ names.
“You have to be creative,” Tomas said in his first interview with area news outlets after taking over as SCC’s president. “You have to cultivate these relationships, all the way along. After building relationships, if you have that need, you go back and say: ‘This is what we’re doing,’ and ask for a level of support.”
Tomas, 55, said he believes the communities served by SCC will be responsive to calls for funding help.
“The community is very supportive,” Tomas said. “Southwestern has a tremendous positive relationship in the region.”
Tomas believes Macon County, which has a new satellite campus, likely has the most potential for growth. He pointed to the new Macon classroom building, which is already at capacity shortly after opening its doors.
But that, Tomas said, is something that needs fleshing out with a better assessment after studying where growth is taking place.
“In six months from now, I could probably tell you ‘yes, here and here,’” Tomas said.
Still, it seems obvious the Jackson County campus is fairly landlocked, and a new building under way there will take care of its needs for the immediate future, Tomas said.
Tomas also wants to assess possibilities for SCC in Swain County, and plans to soon meet with tribal leaders with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
SCC’s new president takes over after a short stint by Richard Collings, who resigned the post suddenly. Longtime SCC President Cecil Groves retired last summer. Collings suffered a stroke after coming to North Carolina to start his new job and was forced to delay his start date. Collings resigned after just six months, and an interim president had to take over for the second time in less than a year until Tomas was put in place.
Tomas said SCC has continued to serve the region even through the year of turmoil in leadership.
“It might have been a little bit of a holding pattern, but it wasn’t noticed,” Tomas said.
If there has been a leadership vacuum, Tomas said it could well be in areas such as growth.
He is interested in evaluating where, exactly, SCC is at, and where the communities it serves wants the college to proceed. A strategic plan for the college will get under way this fall.
Tomas added that he isn’t “a field of dreams-type person, ‘build it and they will come.’”
Community colleges, by nature, shouldn’t be seen as an isolated institution.
“You have to meet people on their own turf,” Tomas said.
Tomas plans a three-county, meet-and-greet tour next month
Tomas said a virtue of community colleges is their ability to pivot quickly and respond to needs in the community for training and workforce development. For example, SCC is providing GED classes at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino to make it easy for the employees there.
Tomas stressed the importance of students leaving SCC with an “employable exit.” He also hopes to work with WCU’s new chancellor to make the transition for students going beyond a two-year degree.
“Out students are gong to be Western students,” Tomas said. “I look forward to that relationship.
And, for that matter, the same goes for the new superintendant of Jackson County Schools, ushering in a new era with leadership change at the public school, community college and university level in Jackson County at the same time.
As did Chancellor Belcher in a public meeting a few weeks ago, SCC’s new president promised open, honest and visible leadership, and a highly visible role in the community.
“We try to maintain a fabric of openness,” Tomas said.
Tomas plans to be equally visible on campus. He likes to get out of his office and just walk around campus. People will know what he looks like, he promised.
“I have high expectations,” he said. “What comes along with that is accountability.”
At some point, you can expect to find Tomas teaching in the classroom. He believes doing so helps keep administrators grounded and tuned in to faculty and student concerns.